In March of 2020, many of us began referring to the coronavirus pandemic as a “great equalizer.” Though the phrase was certainly myopic, if one is willing to step back, squint, and observe the trend with a little forgiveness and faith in humanity, there is some friendly sentiment there. Disasters often bring communities together, and in the face of COVID-19, we established mutual aid programs, we supported our favorite small businesses, and we called our friends just to check in. But at the same time, we also left many of our most vulnerable behind.
Perhaps a better word for the radical empathy many of us yearned for this past year is “bayanihan.” Bayanihan is “a Filipino cultural value meaning mutual support and mutual caring” according to the Bayanihan Center, which is a part of the broader SOMA Pilipinas cultural district. It’s about helping one another without expecting anything in return. The local Filipino community has felt the effects of the pandemic acutely, through homelessness in “Box City,” through ongoing gentrification, and through a battered small-business economy. But community support — bayanihan — still exists, especially in the Filipino community’s vibrant cultural district, SOMA Pilipinas.
This Thursday, the SOMA Pilipinas cultural district celebrates the five-year anniversary with plans for racial equity programming and a brand new garden in the heart of the South of Market neighborhood. The district uses a community-in-action approach to preserve Filipino visibility in the city’s tech epicenter and one of its most gentrified neighborhoods. Some of their most notable successes include blocking the development of luxury condos, preserving the Gran Oriente Filipino Hotel as a historic landmark, and receiving the National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” grant to increase community visibility with public art. Now, they’re using their fifth anniversary as an opportunity to jumpstart the necessary work of post-pandemic healing. “We are excited to be part of the recovery of our city, a recovery based on racial equity and economic opportunity and sustainability for marginalized communities,” says Raquel Redondiez, the executive director of SOMA Pilipinas.
SOMA Pilipinas’ planned programming includes self-defense workshops, free mental health services in partnership with the Filipino Mental Health Initiative, supplemental groceries and COVID-19 education through the Bayanihan Equity Center, restorative art programming for seniors taught at the Bindlestiff Studio, and language training by the South of Market Community Action Network (SOMCAN). The services each address specific difficulties the community faces — Filipino middle schoolers, for example, suffer disproportionate rates of suicidal ideation in San Francisco, while the death of 78-year-old Antonio Durano, a senior Filipino man who was hit by a car earlier this month, has shaken the community’s sense of safety, Redondiez says. The kick-off celebration will be hosted from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Kapwa Gardens, a brand new outdoor space designed for social distancing. Organizers say the kick-off event is already at capacity.
“We’re a cultural hub, but also a service hub,” Redondiez explains. People from all over the city come to the district for resources on tenant rights, senior services, self defense workshops, and other programs, she says. And while much of the San Francisco Filipino population has been pushed out of SOMA to other districts (Excelsior, for example, has twice as many Filipino residents), Redondiez says Filipinos have historical ties here. “When we talk to folks who come from outside, they still have their roots in SOMA — everyone has a SOMA story.”
Filipino American history is a history of migration, says Redondiez, and SOMA was not always San Francisco’s Filipino hub. Many from the first wave of migration, made up mostly of young men recruited to work as farm workers, found themselves in a neighborhood once called Manilatown between Chinatown and the Financial District. The neighborhood was built upon by developers until it disappeared, and Filipino renters, over 100 of whom lived at the International Hotel, were evicted and forced to live elsewhere. The community established roots in SOMA after second and third waves of immigration brought on by the 1965 Immigration Act according to Redondiez, which removed national origins quotas and established family ties as the primary means of immigration.
“The Manilatown Heritage Foundation, which is still there, is part of our cultural district, even if they’re outside the legislative boundaries,” Redondiez says. “There is a direct historical throughline. Even the Kearny Street Workshop, based in SOMA, had their roots in the I-Hotel.”
SOMA Pilipinas takes this history and celebrates years of resilience. At the new Kapwa Gardens, for example, vibrant murals in a rainbow of turquoise, purple, and orange light up this industrial pocket of the city. “Test and stretch” events invite neighbors to enjoy yoga and get tested for coronavirus, while food trucks and vendors host delicious food and arts offerings. Here, community love and support — bayanihan — reigns.
“We’re very much rooted in our history and culture, as a community, but we’re also really about looking forward and responding to the current experiences of our community,” Redondiez says. “We’re making home and culture here.”